DACs Demystified - Understanding digital-to-analog converters

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If you’ve shopped for electronics lately, chances are you’ve seen the term DAC thrown around. So what is a DAC and why should you buy one? DAC stands for digital-to-analog converter. In relation to audio, most music you own is probably digital (CDs, MP3 files, computer music, etc) and needs to be converted into analog before the human ear can understand it. All CD players, iPods, and other digital devices already have DACs built in, but they’re often inaccurate to the discerning listener. Better DACs use higher-end components which convert smaller voltages with greater precision. As the bit-depth & sample rate increase, so increases the overall sound quality. The benefit to the listener is a richer, fuller, sound with more clarity and depth detail.

Now you want a DAC, but which one should you choose? Discovering how you listen to your music can sometimes help narrow down the choice.

Listening to music on your stereo

If you listen to your music primarily through your stereo, then a corded DAC may be just right for you. These devices require a 110 volt power plug, are typically larger and can be stacked up with other stereo components. Although they are not readily portable, these DACs tend to have additional features such as auxiliary inputs, a USB input, digital inputs, or may occasionally include an integrated headphone amplifier. There are some wireless DACs available that allow users to connect an i-device or mobile phone to the stereo without running a cord. This is especially handy if you would like to connect another device (like a computer) in a different room to your main stereo. Some high-end DACs will also have an up-sampling capability. This allows the DAC to convert a lower bit music file to a higher bit-rate for an improved detail.

Listening from your laptop

Storing all your music on a computer is fairly common. Having thousands of songs on a computer and building endless playlists is very appealing. Typically, users will run a cord from the laptop’s headphone jack to their stereo or plug headphones directly in to hear the music. Unfortunately, most laptop DACs experience subtle errors in the analog rebuilding process that results in diminishing audio quality. Translation: Bad audio quality. A great solution for these individuals is a USB DAC. These devices bypass the headphone jack on the laptop and connect directly to the USB port. This keeps the music files digital all the way to the DAC. Many of these DACS are also asynchronous. This means the DAC itself controls when and how much data is sent through the USB port which results in much better sound quality. For audiophiles on the go, many asynchronous DACs have the advantage of being USB powered as well. This means the digital-to-analog converter does not need a separate power cord, the USB port provides all the power.

The Rundown

If you love music and have tons of digital files, you should seriously consider a DAC. The sound quality improvement is instantly noticeable whether you listen with headphones or through speakers. Your music will never sound better and you can appreciate the music on a whole new level. With so many DACs to choose from, there are converters priced to meet every budget.